For the third time in the last five years, Virginia Tech basketball is off to an 8-1 start. The Hokies picked up their first ACC win of the year on Sunday vs. No. 18 North Carolina, dispatching the Tar Heels 80-72.
Though UNC was without Armando Bacot — the ACC Preseason Player of the Year bruised his right shoulder in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge on Wednesday at Indiana — the Hokies were dominant in a sold-out Cassell Coliseum. They outrebounded Carolina by 14, 39-25, which comes on the heels of grabbing 15 more boards than Minnesota on Monday. And they shot 51% from the floor (31-of-61) while forcing 10 turnovers with solid defense.
“We harped on it, we harped on it, we harped on it,” Tech head coach Mike Young said of the effort on the glass. “Certainly, losing Bacot is hurtful for them in that part of the game. … Not as good of a rebounding North Carolina team, needless to say, without Armando.”
As the game played out, it turned into the Justyn Mutts show. He recorded the 20th double-double of his career (fourth this season) with 27 points and 11 rebounds, and he took over the game for stretches at a time. A large chunk came in the second half, too — 21 points, to be exact. That’s his largest output in a period in a Tech (8-1, 1-0 ACC) uniform.
Simply put, Mutts took over the game. After scoring six points on 3-of-6 in the first half, he was 9-of-10 after intermission. He had two reverse layups, hit a smooth hook shot and his imprint was all over the game. Carolina (5-4, 0-1 ACC) struggled to contain him.
“Mutts was special,” Young said afterwards. “Mutts was the best player on the floor today. I don’t think anyone could argue that.”
MJ Collins played a big role off the bench, too. While Sean Pedulla (14 points), Hunter Cattoor (13) and Grant Basile (12) all scored in double figures, Collins had some important contributions. The true freshman from Clover, S.C. played 21 minutes and tallied eight points and eight rebounds, including five on the offensive glass. That mark was greater than that of the entire Carolina team.
Right before halftime, he had an explosive one-handed dunk in transition off a Pete Nance turnover. And when Tech was in a cold stretch in the second half, Collins hit a 3-pointer in front of the Hokie bench that gave the team a lift. On top of that, Young subbed him in for Basile with 2:05 remaining when UNC was gearing up for a late run, which shows the trust he’s earned on the defensive end of the floor.
“He’s going to be a really, really good player,” Young said of Collins. “Like most freshmen, he’s had some choppy moments. He’s helping us; I thought he was much improved defensively tonight. Just his awareness is getting so much better as we go along. That stands to reasons — the more plays they see, the more comfortable they are grabbing it, ‘I got it, I got it.’ And he’s doing that more and more consistently.”
In an all-time day for Virginia Tech basketball that included Kenny Brooks & Co. defeating Tennessee in Knoxville, Young’s crew jumped out to an early lead in Blacksburg. UNC scored first and led for the first two minutes, but a quick 8-0 run got the crowd into it, and the Tar Heels never led again.
In 80 minutes of basketball on Sunday against two blue bloods with a combined 13 national championships, the Virginia Tech women’s and men’s teams led for 75:28. https://t.co/EeMevo6Y0G
— David Cunningham (@therealdcunna) December 5, 2022
Tech’s defense stood its ground — Carolina had five turnovers in the first five minutes — and the wheels turned offensively. UNC was just 9-of-23 in the first half and only made back-to-back field goals twice. Meanwhile, the Hokies were 16-of-31 (51.6%) and outscored the Tar Heels 26-13 over a 13-minute span. For the game, Tech finished with 16 assists on 31 made baskets.
“We were better,” Young said of Tech’s offensive game. “I thought Sean, man, that kid’s aggressive, sometimes to my detriment, but I’m not going to slow him down. He’s proven to us he can do it and I think he’s got to have the rope to play the game. … But we’re going to get better there as well.
“We needed today. We needed the Tar Heels, someone of that ilk, to play and that heightened sense of awareness and embracing the grit and the grind that goes along with winning games of this nature.”
However, like all talented teams, North Carolina made some runs. Tech was 50% from the floor in the second half but had six turnovers, and UNC found its groove. Caleb Love, RJ Davis and Pete Nance, who scored 21 of Carolina’s 27 first-half points, exploded for 33 down the stretch. All three finished with 18 points.
The game reached fever pitched, though, after the under-eight media timeout. Hubert Davis had his group full-court press Tech. In turn, that sparked a 19-6 run over three minutes and cut the margin to three points with 3:06 left. All the momentum rested with North Carolina, who trailed 67-64 and had made eight of its last 10 shots.
The Hokies endured a streak where they were just one-of-seven — the one make was Collins’s 3-pointer. Much like the road trip to Dayton last December, the press got Tech out of rhythm. The team turned it over four times in four minutes between the under-eight and under-four timeouts.
But Virginia Tech weathered the storm, locked down defensively and took advantage of its opportunities. Among those? Pedulla drilling a wide open trey with 1:02 remaining and 17 seconds on the shot clock. It was a gutsy shot in a five-point game — miss and UNC has an opportunity to control the game. But it swished through the net and pushed the lead back to eight.
“They didn’t blink,” Young said. “From that point on when it did get to three, we sat down and did the things we were supposed to do. … A level of toughness and a level of resolve when the heat’s on a little bit, and they withstood it.”
From there, the game was sealed at the charity stripe. Tech was 3-of-7 from the free throw line before the last two minutes but made eight in a row — two each from Basile, Collins, Mutts and Pedulla — to seal the win.
It gives the Hokies their first ranked victory of the season, and it doubles as a Quadrant 1 result, at least for the time being. UNC is sliding — the former No. 1 team in the country has lost four games in a row — but it’s a talented group that can right the ship. Should the Tar Heels be a top-25 team come March, Sunday’s triumph would be huge. At the moment, Tech has more Q1 wins (two) than it did all of last season (one).
Up next is Dayton, who to Blacksburg on Wednesday. It’s a rematch from a close game last year in Ohio. Tech seems better prepared this time around, especially on the defensive end.
“That was the worst five-point beating I’ve ever had last year in Flyer Arena,” Young said, “They’ve got much of the same cast back. … It’ll be a good ballgame. They’re really good and we’re going to have to be on the top of our game.”
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